The newly signed forestry agreement between the province of Quebec and the Grand Council of the Crees is a remarkable accomplishment.
Six months of challenging negotiations, mediated by former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, have yielded a set of compromises that will put limits on logging in a 7,245-square-kilometre tract of land, completely protect an additional 9,134 square kilometres of woodland, set the scene for a long-term forestry management framework and rid the province of the looming threat of a multi-million dollar lawsuit launched by the Cree. In many ways, this is a win-win deal.
It is also a welcome example of what can be accomplished when governments and First Nations leaders come to the table with, as Premier Philippe Couillard put it, “openness, dialogue and respect.”
The 25th anniversary of the start of the Oka Crisis, which Quebec marked Saturday, provided a sad reminder of what can happen when those conditions are absent. In an effort to protect their ancestral lands from development, the Mohawks at Kanesatake felt they had no other choice but to resort to blockades, and the situation deteriorated from there. More than two decades later, who actually owns the land that sparked the crisis remains in contention.
What happened in Quebec City on Monday stood in stark contrast to that tragic affair. Both sides proved early on that they were willing to commit to the hard work necessary to resolve the dispute. The Cree had accused the province and the forest industry, specifically Resolute Forest Products, of clear-cutting in violation of the Baril-Moses letter, a 2002 deal to protect Cree traplines in the 7,245-square-kilometre area. Rather than engaging in a costly court battle, the parties chose mediation.
It is this kind of respectful, nation-to-nation dialogue that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — tasked with probing the sordid history of Canada’s residential school system to which so many First Nations people were subjected — pushed so hard for in its highly publicized recommendations in June.
However, there is an important party missing from this agreement: Leaders within the Innu First Nation have deemed Monday’s deal “unacceptable” because they say the land in question is Innu, not Cree. The Cree community of Waswanapi, meanwhile, has also voiced its opposition, alleging that with forestry companies still permitted to cut down sections of woodland, the native caribou population remains threatened.
These are legitimate concerns, and the dissenting voices certainly should not be ignored. Couillard and Grand Council of the Crees Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come have said that every effort will be made to bring Waswanapi’s citizens on board, and to include the Innu in talks that will work out more specific forestry co-management practices for the entirety of the 7,245-kilometre Baril-Moses forest. It is to be hoped that this is more than lip-service. The Innu claims to the land must be taken into account, and protecting the iconic woodland caribou (featured on the back of Canadian quarters since the 1930s) from extinction should remain a top priority. This forestry deal, and those that follow, will only be strengthened through broader consensus.
There is undoubtedly plenty of hard work ahead. But the agreement signed this week is an extremely positive first step, and shows what can be accomplished in a climate of mutual respect.